SAN FRANCISCO >> A university archaeologist, a city librarian, a genealogist and even a psychic are trying to solve the mystery of the little girl in the coffin.
Last month, a construction crew unearthed a small cast-iron coffin in a neighborhood here that once housed a cemetery. Thousands of the city’s dead were removed in the early 1900s when politicians and developers pushed for more housing. During the disinterment project, a 37-inch coffin with curved glass windows was left behind.
Inside the coffin was the body of a perfectly preserved child about 3 years old, wearing a white embroidered dress with a bow and a cross of lavender on her chest. Rose petals and eucalyptus leaves lay beside her.
In today’s more complex world, where a girl killed by a stray bullet might receive a few tweets, this mystery of a child long gone has garnered international coverage.
At a ceremony last weekend, the little girl in the coffin was nested into a larger casket of handmade cherrywood and buried in Colma, a necropolis for San Francisco’s dead, where others from the Odd Fellows Cemetery were reinterred. Mothers and their daughters, parents with small children and older couples came, they said, because they were touched by the little girl’s story. “We felt for her getting left behind,” said Heather Reynolds, who came with her mother, Barbara. “We wanted to give her a nice send-off,” she said.
Engraved on a small headstone was the name Miranda Eve, given to her by the young children who live in the house where the coffin was found and a city administrator who helped arrange the burial. The back of the headstone was left blank, so that if the girl’s true identity is discovered, her name can be added.
Before her second burial, a few strands of the girl’s hair were removed for analysis. Jelmer Eerkens, a University of California, Davis, archaeologist who is more accustomed to working with materials from ancient peoples along the Nile or from Native Americans in California, offered to investigate.
“I read they were planning to just rebury the body without any analysis,” he said. “As an archaeologist, I thought, that’s not right. At some point, these things from the past become our collective heritage.”
“All human societies recognize the importance of ancestry and history,” Eerkens said. “But rather than a general story about war and history, this is a story about an individual person. People can understand and connect with how sad it must have been to lose a young daughter.”
Eerkens, who specializes in isotope analysis, said a strand of hair “is like a tree ring.” By using a mass spectrometer, he said, “we’ll be able to learn from the moment she died and going back in time, maybe in two-week to one-month intervals, where she was living because of the food and water that gets incorporated into hair.”
In the 1800s, people generally ate food available in their immediate environs. Also, there are slight differences in the composition of water, which enables archaeologists to determine “a biochemical signature of where someone is from,” Eerkens said.
If her DNA survived, and if genealogists can determine the little girl’s name, he said, “it might offer us the possibility to track down modern descendants of this person.”
Eerkens said he does not expect to be able to determine the cause of the little girl’s death.
The small coffin was found in early May in the backyard of Ericka Karner’s home in the Richmond district in the northern part of the city. Karner, who grew up in the Spanish-style stucco house, said part of her “was not surprised” by the discovery. The house was built in 1938 atop what had once been the Odd Fellows Cemetery, and the city’s residents living on old cemetery properties occasionally still find bone fragments, chipped marble and, sometimes, even headstones in their yards.
In the late 1800s, San Francisco politicians, backed by aggressive land developers, campaigned to rid the city of its sprawling cemeteries. According to a 1924 article in The Richmond Banner, it was believed the cemeteries could lead to “plague and pestilence” if they were not removed.
Thousands of bodies were disinterred and taken to nearby Colma for reburial. A photograph of the digging at Odd Fellows Cemetery appears to show a methodical process, but somehow at least one small coffin was missed.
“Somebody loved this child tremendously,” said Elissa Davey, founder of Garden of Innocence, a nonprofit organization that buries abandoned children. Davey arranged for donations of the coffin and the burial plot at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma.
The child’s family “must have been pretty wealthy,” Davey said. Instead of a $2 wooden box, the little girl was buried in a windowed cast-iron coffin that cost $50 to $100, she said. The coffin, Davey added, was manufactured in 1858.
If a child’s identity is unknown, Davey insists that a name is given before burial. As a genealogist conducting her own research, Davey has examined old maps from the Odd Fellows Cemetery and collected the names of more than 100 girls who were buried there shortly before 1890, the year the city passed an ordinance outlawing burial at the cemetery.
Mortality among young children was common then. In 1900, children younger than 5 accounted for nearly a third of all deaths in the United States. A century later, that number was reduced to around 1 percent. There were even more names of children who were buried at the cemetery, but Davey said she had given up.
Davey has fielded calls about the little girl from as far away as London, Rome and Australia. “A lot of people are calling us who say they know who it is,” she said. A psychic once told her that, “her hair was standing on her arm. She knows what the child’s name is.” Davey discounted that claim and is not hopeful of finding the girl’s identity, saying those chances are “slim to none.”
Thomas Carey, a librarian and archivist with the San Francisco Public Library’s History Center, may be closer to solving the mystery.
Carey compared homestead maps of the Odd Fellows Cemetery with more detailed cemetery plot maps from the California Genealogical Society, closing “to within 100 feet” of where the coffin was found. Researching other documents, Carey looked for names of young people buried in that section of the cemetery. He has identified four girls age 5 and younger. Using city directories and digital versions of San Francisco newspapers, he plans to search death notices.
It was the naming of the child that motivated Carey, whose father died recently. “He had a name and we knew who he was. I had a bit of an issue of renaming the girl,” he said. She once was someone, he said. “Somebody ought to figure that out.”
“This girl cries out to me,” said Janet McDonald, one of the mourners at the burial service. McDonald wants to know: “What took her life and how could they forget her?”